Playing without their anchors in the paint, Tuesday night's battle between the Texas Longhorns and UConn Huskies was decided by guard play and the Huskies' core on the perimeter won that battle, earning a valuable 71-66 road win to close out the non-conference season.
UConn's 7'0 center Amida Brimah was missing from action after suffering a broken finger on Christmas Eve, while Texas was without senior star Cam Ridley, who is out indefinitely after breaking a bone in his foot.
Heading into the game, I thought the Husky guards deserved to be in any conversation about the best backcourts in the country, and their performance tonight showed why. Former Longhorn Sterling Gibbs is a productive combo guard with a high basketball IQ who knows how to score buckets, whether he's manning the point or playing off ball at the 2. Gibbs would be less effective if forced to try to play as a true point on a full-time basis (not unlike Javan Felix), but UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is spared that dilemma by his rising sophomore star Daniel Hamilton.
The younger brother of Longhorn standout Jordan Hamilton, UConn's Daniel is a legit 6'7 with skills that force opponents to defend him a full 25 feet. He'll beat you at the rim if you let him, but he's ready to pull the trigger from NBA three-point range if you sag and give him space. Throw in good handles, improving body strength, and pure basketball instincts and you've got a Swiss Army knife with bite. There's some similarity there in the skill set of the Longhorns' Tevin Mack (more on him in a minute), but I'm not sure any one play could better depict the difference between sophomores and freshmen than this play, one of the two key plays to UConn winning the contest:
We haven't even mentioned the third member of the Huskies' stellar starting backcourt, junior Rodney Purvis, who after a strong sophomore season has elevated his game up another couple notches as a junior to become a poor man's Reggie Miller. (That's not offered as faint praise.) Purvis was the MVP tonight, scoring a team-high 16 points on 12 shots, including two dagger second-half three pointers, including this backbreaker that put UConn up six points late in the game:
That's just filthy, and you have to tip your cap to UConn: they made the big plays down the stretch they needed to win this one on the road and avenge getting Holmes'd last year
As for Texas, it always hurts to lose one at home, and losses that end winning streaks can be particularly bitter pills to swallow, but in the big picture this was more of a missed opportunity than a damaging defeat. We learned a few things about this team tonight, a mixture of good and bad:
* The Javan Felix Paradox gets at the fundamental limitation of this group. We get a big boost when Felix has enough room to operate as a sharpshooter and can contribute double-digit scoring, but length neutralizes a lot of his effectiveness. When that happens, we're forced to rely on a freshman to step up as a source of scoring. Even when the freshmen are up to the task (which they often have been), the downside to relying on freshmen in any one aspect is that it means you also have to rely on those freshmen in all aspects. And they tend to excel and struggle in pieces.
* Tevin Mack's baseline talent level is just absurd, because he is nowhere near putting it all together and is already capable of dropping 20 like he did tonight. He reminds me a bit in that sense of Sheldon McClellan, another guy who was in many ways just lost as a true freshman but couldn't help but shine in spots. My early reading of Mack is that he's not a brilliant pure basketball player (a la J'Covan Brown, for example), but you can't teach talent like that. He'll be on campus at least three years, and it's going to be interesting to watch him develop as the basketball skills elevate to complement the raw talent.
* The absence of Ridley probably wasn't decisive tonight, but boy what a blow heading into conference play. From where I'm sitting, Shaka's only got one real play at this point: go all-in on the press. Havoc Max. I won't be surprised if we see Texas amp up the pressure defense by several degrees. We're behind the eight ball, and it makes sense with the personnel. Might as well and see what happens.
Thus concludes the non-con schedule, save a random contest with Vanderbilt in a month. Shaka Smart will earn his paycheck the next three months: the Big 12 is the best top-to-bottom conference in the country, bar none. Buckle up and wear a helmet, folks.